by Allyson Wuerth
“We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!”—W.W
Every writing workshop I’ve ever attended, I’ve been taught this: don’t write about a fresh hurt; let time pass. If it’s too fresh, too close, your words become litters of blind puppies thrown onto the Merritt Parkway. But the thing about Sandy Hook is I will never be far enough away. There will never be enough distance between us.
I am removed from Sandy Hook by only 20 miles and two years. Even though my own two children were safe in their New Haven grammar school that awful day, I sat in the faculty room of my high school watching the news and remembering the shampoo & little boy scent of my own first grader. Longing for him, as if he were already gone. His lisp. His new glasses, the whole messiness of him. His love of reading and his little sister. What had I said to him that morning of December 14, 2012 when I rushed out the door? Even then, I couldn’t remember.
So much of that day is broken into breaths of before and after.
The before breath, where I kept my classroom door opened and unlocked, where I could pop in at my own kids’ school without leaving my driver’s license at the front desk, where I could send my children off to school and there was no question, not a single doubt that they would be safely returned to me.
December 14th 2012, I taught two classes. It was my “easy day.” I didn’t know anything until 12:50 pm, when my 3rd period class ended. All the while 20 children and 6 of their teachers were being shot, I was deeply engrossed in the reading and interpretation of Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” His words so clear, I can hear them rolling through my head calling for action and movement and change. One student spoke up that morning, hesitant as students usually are when interpreting poetry, “Is the speaker talking about us?”
“Whom?” I remember asking.
“Young people,” she responded. “Is he talking about us? Are we the tan–faced children?”
We watched clips from Dead Poets Society, my students mesmerized. Was it the allure of transcendentalism, a philosophy so short-lived in its own time because of its flagrant idealism? America plunged into the Civil War and left Emerson & Thoreau in its wake. And, yet, here in Whitman’s voice, they awakened. Here, in my students who continued watching long into the credits, they lived.
Our principal came over the loud speaker as I was walking to the faculty room. In my small catholic high school, she asked us all to pray, her voice nervous: “. . .there has been a school shooting very near to us in Newtown at an elementary school. A principal had been shot.”
In the faculty room we had our eyes glued to the television. In the 11 years I worked at that school, Sandy Hook was the one time we turned on the television. It was the first time no one spoke.
The newscaster was saying that there may be two shooters. . .only one accounted for. Was there a second shooter out there? Could he drive the 23.6 miles to my children’s school? The thought consumed me, filled me with a heartache, a longing, and a shame I couldn’t explain right then.
I checked email every few seconds, just in case there were any updates. My daughter’s amazing teacher emailed me.
It was what I needed to hear. Because I felt so damn lucky to hear it, to picture Sawyer sleeping on her cot with her lady bug sleeping bag, clutching her pink penguin. When I couldn’t hold it in any longer, I burst into tears, the kind of tears that make you feel like your body is imploding. A colleague wrapped her arms around me.
My daughter’s classroom was right across the hall from my son’s. This, before December 14, 2012, was always a comfort to me. My son, 6, with his watchful eyes always peering into his little sister’s preschool classroom, my daughter, only then beginning to emerge from her shyness, coming home with stories about Tristan waving to her from the hall.
And then this closeness, those small and few footsteps between their classrooms became a horrible burden to me. What if?
When I picked my children up that day, I sat beside an amazing woman, her daughter a classmate of my son’s. We sat in silence waiting for the pick-up announcement, our hips touching. Finally she said, “I’m such a news junkie, and the first report I saw came through early in the morning. The AP said the shooting was at a New Haven grammar school. The next report said Newtown.” For a moment, we did not breathe.
I picked up my girl first. Buried my nose in her hair. She was 3, and it was her first year of school. And then, my son, who knew something about the day, things he would not mention until they were safely buckled into their car seats.
He knew that somewhere there was a bad man with a gun. Older kids at school had mentioned it. “Was it kindergartners, mom?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I lied. How could I tell him about the twenty first graders? I didn’t have the language for that conversation then or now.
But he wouldn’t let it go. “It had to be, mom, because they are too small to fight back. First grade or bigger could fight back.”
That night and many nights after, I curled up on the couch and watched CNN. I’d never done this before. As the days passed, the names of the victims were released. Tribute videos appeared. During a photo montage for Olivia Engel my heart stumbles over itself. Olivia and her brother at Jones Tree Farm in Shelton. They beam from the “rainbow horse.” She is six. Her brother looks to be the three-year old my daughter is. I have this same picture, only the smiling children on the rainbow horse are my own. It was on the holiday cards we sent out on December 8th. There is no space in which to cage my heart.
These are just images. Two children on a horse at a pumpkin farm. I’m sure thousands of Connecticut families have this same photograph, the ground covered in so many pumpkins. Both Tristan and Olivia clutch the braided rope. Did she, too, hunt too long for just the right pumpkin?
Even today, I worry about moving into spaces once occupied by someone else. Of flurries that are the delicate bellwethers of ghosts. Of breaking glass and lost souls. The two of them together on some collision course that no one can stop.
In the weeks that followed Sandy Hook, everything changed. Long lines of parents spilled out the glass doors of my children’s school. A new rule, we had to sign them out one grade-level at a time. This signing in and out of one’s children takes the kind of time parents do not have. We were torn between annoyance and shame. Names were needed. Times. Room numbers. For weeks we waited quietly, complaining only to ourselves and our spouses. This is what we must do. And it is no great sacrifice. But months into this routine, we verbalized its uselessness, some parents going as far as signing out their children under names like Charles Manson or Jeffery Dahmer. No one important notices.
Children are gathered up into their winter coats and shuttled out the doors. Over and over. Every day. It is impossible to keep them safe.
About the Author:
Allyson Wuerth is a co-editor of Tell Us a Story. She is a mom, a wife, a high school English teacher, and a writer. And, right now, she is happy to be just those four things. She has published poetry in several literary magazines. You can read her other two blog posts, The True Story of Why I Hate Math and What we Miss Most by clicking these links.